Sacramento was gateway to gold

Boom town struggled to survive amid floods, riots and cholera

By Steve Wiegand
Bee Staff Writer
Published Jan. 18, 1998

The journey to California is depicted in this painting, "The Rocky Mountains, Emigrants Crossing the Plains"

Blessed with that most prized of all real estate attributes -- location -- Sacramento was born in the Gold Rush -- and baptized by water, fire, riots and plague.

And that was all before the Legislature arrived.

It certainly wasn't the baby John Sutter had in mind. The Swiss adventurer had visions of an agriculture-based empire when he arrived in the region in 1839 and built a fort about two miles from the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers.

"I never saw a more beautiful stream," Kentucky newspaperman Edwin Bryant wrote about the Sacramento River in 1846. "American enterprise will soon develop the wealth contained in these streams."

Bryant had no idea how true that statement would prove, and neither did Sutter. By 1848, Sutter was just trying to juggle creditors, cope with the political changes wrought by the American annexation of California, and get a wood mill running in Coloma to supply lumber for the town he wanted to build.

Captain John Sutter
John A. Sutter
The Gold Rush dashed his dream of an agriculture-based empire.

Overwhelmed by the flood of change brought on by the discovery of gold at the mill, however, Sutter turned most of his business affairs over to his son, John Sutter Jr., in mid-1848.

The senior Sutter had wanted to build a new town, somewhat immodestly called Sutterville, a few miles south of the confluence of the two rivers, at a site less prone to flooding. But others -- notably a merchant named Sam Brannan -- had opened stores at the embarcadero next to the Sacramento River, to take advantage of the area's location as the jumping-off place to the mines.

They persuaded the younger Sutter to lay out the town there in the fall of 1848. His father, who had been looking for gold near Coloma, was furious when he returned, but it was too late: The new town was founded.

"It was really jealousy which built the city of Sacramento," the senior Sutter later wrote. "As matters stood, I could do nothing else but agree to everything, even to the name of Sacramento, which my son and Brannan had selected."

The new town grew like spring grass. In April 1849, the population was estimated at about 150. By October, it was estimated at 6,000, "and all male," observed one visitor.

"It is a very lively place," a new store owner wrote to the Cleveland Plain Dealer in October 1849. "Houses are plenty, some of rough wood, and others of canvas. ... The dust is about as thick and plenty as mud used to be in Detroit. Goods are selling much cheaper than previously. I have had some difficulty in selling butter at over $1 (about $20 in 1997 currency) per pound."

If butter wasn't selling, land was. Lots that sold for $200 in early 1849 sold for as much as $30,000 by the fall. The Eagle Theatre was opened. The three-story City Hotel was erected, at a reported cost of $100,000. And the town's first of many gambling emporiums -- with the less-than-euphonious name "The Stinking Tent" -- began doing a brisk business.

Sutter's Fort
Sutter's Fort, built in 1839, is one of the few sites in Sacramento that have survived since the Gold Rush. It is a popular tourist attraction in midtown Sacramento.

Bee photograph: Dick Schmidt

Where Americans congregate, government follows. In July 1849, the community elected its first City Council, which promptly drafted a city charter. It, in turn, was promptly defeated by the city's gambling interests, which preferred there be no formal government. Two months later, however, a second charter try was successful. On Feb. 27, 1850, the charter was approved by the Legislature, six months before California itself became a state.

The city was tested early. In January 1850, 10 days of flooding wiped out much of the town. Later in the year, two fires burned down a score of prominent buildings.

And in the summer of 1850, a growing dispute between settlers and land speculators led to two days of riots. Eight men died, including the town's first sheriff and largest saloon owner, Joseph McKinney. Six men, including Sacramento's first mayor, Hardin Bigelow, were wounded.

The leader of the settlers, Dr. John Robinson, was indicted for murder, but never tried. Instead, he was elected to the Legislature.

On Oct. 15, 1850, the riverboat New World arrived in Sacramento with news that California had been added to the Union.

It also carried a passenger with cholera. By the end of the epidemic, more than 500 people had died. Many of them were buried in a common grave.

"This place is a monument to pestilence," wrote one visitor to the New York Herald in December 1850. "I despair of its future when the gold has played its course."

He underestimated Sacramento.

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